Match Analysis: Plymouth Argyle 2 Bristol Rovers 2

Sometimes, it just feels like you’re not supposed to win a football match.

At the weekend, Plymouth Argyle led twice against Graham Coughlan’s Bristol Rovers, but couldn’t get over the line with three points. Instead, two equalisers, first from Jonson Clarke-Harris and then Gavin Reilly, meant the hosts had to settle for a share of the spoils. Whilst the result does extend the gap between Argyle and the relegation zone from three points to four, this game will nonetheless be seen as a big missed opportunity, particularly with some tough fixtures to come.

Derek Adams was thrown a curveball ahead of the fixture with news of an injury to Graham Carey. Thus, he decided to switch back to the 3-5-1-1 formation utilised against Luton Town, which allowed Carey to be swapped out for Jamie Ness, a more seamless swap than replacing Carey with any of Argyle’s wing options would have been. This formation was born to contain Luton when they visited Home Park at the start of the month. How did this defensive shape work against another opponent? Well, more or less as you’d anticipate.

Blunted attacking threat

This formation’s primary objective was to be defensively solid. It therefore follows that the extra defensive protection meant Argyle weren’t quite as strong going forward. With Carey out, this was exacerbated even further. Argyle’s absent talisman may have assisted in the cause, but without him Argyle were never likely to be able to play through Rovers in midfield, given the absence of players further forward; if at least nine players are behind the ball, it becomes even harder to find the one or two up-field.

That’s not to say Argyle were completely blunt in attack: Ruben Lameiras’ more liberated role behind Freddie Ladapo meant he was able to drift into wide areas; and wing backs Gary Sawyer and Joe Riley provided at least some attacking presence. Through Riley in particular, who has grown into his role well since his reintroduction to the side, Argyle were able to at the very least carry the ball into wide attacking areas. Riley’s crossing was decent enough too – an excellent ball across goal into a great area led to this chance in the first half from Ladapo. From three yards out, however, the Argyle striker was unable to convert.

 

Watching back, this was an absolute sitter that Ladapo sliced wide. From the opposite end, it looked like the cross was just too far ahead of Ladapo, but in truth he had gambled, timed his run perfectly and fluffed the finish. That is perhaps the most frustrating part of this particular moment. Ladapo did everything right, his movement showing exactly why he’s been able to bag 15 goals this season. However, he was regrettably unable to add another crucial goal to his tally. He’ll be disappointed.

Chances like this, however, were far too few and far between for Argyle. Whilst Riley, and to an extent Sawyer, did demonstrate how they were capable of providing width and putting crosses into good areas, it was clear that Argyle missed Carey and Lameiras playing as inside forwards. In many ways, it’s almost unfair that we have to hold Sawyer and Riley to the same standards. The fact that Argyle weren’t able to play through the visitors’ midfield, and the fact that they were weaker out wide than we’ve come to expect, meant Argyle had quite the attacking conundrum.

The Greens really had only two options. The first of these was to rely on players capable of creating and finishing chances for themselves. With Carey off the field, Argyle’s primary option in this regard wasn’t available. However, Argyle still had players capable of turning nothing into something, most notably Ladapo. Twice in the fixture he used his quick feet to develop decent chances for himself, being repelled by a combination of the Rovers defence and goalkeeper Jack Bonham. As against Luton, it just wasn’t to be for Ladapo on Saturday. You can’t expect the man to run through an entire defence on his own.

With this game plan proving to be exciting but ineffective, Argyle went into the second half and began to follow an all too familiar script. With clear cut chances tough to come by, the team were forced to try their luck with finishing half chances if they were to have any hope of breaking through. Aside from the one clear opening for Ladapo we’ve mentioned, there were no other big opportunities for Argyle across the match. Look at the side’s goals from Saturday. To break through, Argyle had to rely on a superb curling finish from a tight angle, beating two defenders and the ‘keeper, by Lameiras…

 

…and a comedy own goal from Rovers’ Tony Craig.

 

The own goal is of course something you’ll see very rarely, so we can hardly rely on this good fortune to fall in Argyle’s favour every week. Meanwhile, whilst goals like Lameiras’ are something we are getting used to seeing from the Portuguese playmaker, it remains a shame that he has to pull a rabbit out of the hat like this to get Argyle on the scoresheet. Peterborough, Coventry, Barnsley, Stevenage and Oxford have fallen victim to his sharp shooting, but Argyle cannot rely on it alone to keep them up.

As we’ve mentioned, this formation wasn’t one that was born to create chances, but even in the 4-2-3-1 Argyle aren’t getting Lameiras into great positions nearly enough. It’s always lovely to see him score chances like the one at the weekend, and it has led to him scoring 12 goals across the season – an obvious positive. However, he and Argyle would score more if they played their best formation (4-3-2-1) found a way to get him taking these shots on from better areas.

Defensive mishaps

When Argyle kicked off this game, they set up primarily to defend. It’s sound logic to suggest that the more defensive players are on the field in defensive positions, the more difficult it becomes for the opposition to flourish in attack. Add in the fact that the formation worked successfully from a defensive standpoint against Luton, a team who play the same formation as Bristol Rovers and have a better attacking record than anyone else in the league, and Argyle fans should have been confident that they could have kept their Westcountry visitors at bay.

However, defensive formations all seem to work right up to the point that an error is made. That’s exactly what we saw against Sunderland, where Argyle kept their dangerous opponents at bay until Graham Carey’s error helped them break through. Of course, when a team is following a plan to contain their opponents, those opponents busting through the defences can blow the whole plan apart. It therefore always felt like Argyle were an error away from trouble.

Step forward Yann Songo’o. Songo’o is a player who has split and polarised opinions amongst Argyle fans all season, but everyone will surely agree that he does have it in him to drop the occasional massive clanger. And that’s exactly what happened at the weekend. It almost cost Argyle right on the stroke of half time, when he allowed an Ollie Clarke cross to simply loop over his head, allowing for a golden opportunity to fall to Tom Nichols.

 

Songo’o made the exact same error last season, and currently leads the charts for the most defensive errors committed this season with 16, 8 clear of the next closest player.

Songo’o failed to notice the impending danger of Nichols coming in. It took a splendid save from Matt Macey to keep the scores level, although the finish from Nichols was perhaps indicative of a striker with three goals in 37 appearances this season. Unfortunately, as the second half drew to a close, Argyle weren’t quite as lucky. Gavin Reilly got his head on a cross from James Clarke to net a dramatic second equaliser.

 

There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s first look at Songo’o again. He got himself in a poor position as the cross came in, allowing Reilly to run ahead of him with the ball driven towards goal. From there, all Reilly had to do was get a flick on the ball to make things very difficult for Macey. There is also the question of stopping the cross: both Threlkeld and Sarcevic made a run to cover the overlapping run of ex-loanee Holmes-Dennis, creating the space for the cross. Better communication here would have decreased the changes of the ball being delivered into this dangerous area.

Should the Arsenal loanee goalkeeper have done better too? Probably. It certainly looked worse at the time than it does on replay, but whilst the touch from Reilly did complicate matters, the ball did not deviate too far from its original trajectory and Macey could have got part of his body between the ball and goal. It is of course complete speculation, and we’ll never know for sure, but I have a mind to say Letheren would have been more likely to save this effort.

Macey, however, is far from the reason why Argyle didn’t win the game. If anything, his first half save made him a net gain to Argyle’s cause. Meanwhile, there are many factors we can look towards when considering why Argyle weren’t able to cling on to the points. One of which, of course, involves a moment of magic from the opposition.

Final verdict

I’ll say it again. Sometimes, it just feels like you’re not supposed to win a football match. That was certainly the case when Clarke-Harris smashed his effort into the net. With such a key moment going against Argyle at long odds, it felt like this just wasn’t meant to be.

But Argyle had their own share of luck with an own goal fit for any football gaffes DVD going in their favour. And, in truth, the Greens were partial architects in their own downfall. Having taken the lead with a system built to defend, they really ought to have been stronger than they were. But this game was just another example of how defensive systems can be blown apart in an instant.

For many reasons, this will be seen as two points dropped. Let’s hope Argyle can take some points from some tougher forthcoming matches so we can forget about it quickly.

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Adam Price

Adam is the lead editor for Argyle Life's match-day articles and transfer centre. He also features on our Green & White podcast. View all posts by Adam Price